I’m delighted to be part of this event, which gives readers two new short-story treats every day till Christmas. I’m happy to provide your Advent treat for the afternoon of December 4th : Through All the Years, a short Life Lessons coda.
I asked some folks who had not read the Life Lessons series to check it out, and they said this short Holiday piece reads okay for folks who don’t yet know Mac and Tony, as well as for fans of the series.
(Although if you don’t like established couples (or even if you do), you can also get a copy of my 2019 short, a meet-cute-if-violently Christmas story, from Prolific Works here: Shooting Star)
I hope you’re enjoying all the posts in this event. If you came here to mine directly, you can find all the links for the stories, day by day here:
Advent Masterpost – http://alexjane.info/rainbow-advent-calendar-2022/
Advent Public Facebook Group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/1673039336093815/
And now, the story… Through All the Years
Through All the Years (a Life Lessons coda)
At some deep level, Detective Jared MacLean knew he was dreaming, but everything felt so real. My little room under the rafters of a drafty old house in Minneapolis. A precious evening off from chasing murderers. The Minnesota winter’s chill dropped off his single-glazed window despite the quilt he’d hung over it. His bed of stacked mattresses took up a quarter of the floor, a tiny Christmas tree stood on a milk crate, and his three-and-a-half-year-old, Anna, sat beside him with the colored lights reflecting in her eyes.
“It’s pretty, Daddy. Prettier’n Aunt Brenda’s.”
“Shhh,” he said automatically. No good ever came of praising him over Brenda.
“S’okay, Daddy.” Anna patted his hand with her small one. “I told her the white lights is all pretty like snow. But I like our colored ones better.”
They’d picked out the tiny tree together in a last-minute stop at the grocery store, when the cheapo from two years ago suddenly gave up the electrical ghost. Clearly, choosing this one herself and getting to drape the little branches with a whole box of cheap tinsel must’ve given Anna an immediate attachment. He was sneakily glad she loved its two-foot sparsity better than the ceiling-touching, heavily-adorned pine he’d spotted through Brenda’s front window when he picked Anna up. “I’m glad you like it, Princess.”
“Yep!” She gave a decisive nod. “When do we open presents?”
“In the morning. Early, though.” Before work. Before taking her back to Brenda’s. Our time together is never long enough. He didn’t figure early would be a problem for Anna, though. She was up with the birds, any time he had her for a sleepover, and what kid didn’t bounce out of bed on Christmas morning?
“After Santa fills my big sock.” She glanced at the red felt stocking he’d hung by the door, since there was no chimney.
“It looks like a sock. Why doesn’t Aunt Brenda believe in socks?”
“Um.” An image of staid, middle-aged Brenda running around the house barefoot came to mind, and he bit his lip until he could say evenly, “Aunt Brenda doesn’t want us to get too excited about Santa, and forget about Jesus.”
“I can like Santa and Jesus.”
“I’m sure you can. Besides, Santa only fills one stocking per kid, and if you have one here, you can’t have another at Aunt Brenda’s house. That wouldn’t be fair.”
“Oh. Well, then I want it here.” She bounced up off the edge of the bed where they were sitting and danced over to pat the empty toe of the stocking. “Soon you’ll be fat and full, Mr. Sock. Santa’s coming.”
“After you’re asleep,” he pointed out. “So maybe it’s bedtime—”
“No!” She stomped her foot, reminding him that her terrible-twos weren’t far in the rearview. “I’m staying up! I don’t want to sleep when I have Daddy-time.”
A wave of guilt hit him. She should have more of his time, should be secure to sleep knowing he’d be there every morning. If only there’d been a way to reconcile Aunt Brenda’s religious fanaticism and his need for childcare at a moment’s notice. When he was on call, there was no time to hunt around for a sitter or a day care center open in the middle of the night.
I could apologize. I could make nice with Brenda and her God, confess whatever she wants, repent whatever. Maybe she’d be willing to share her house, raise Anna together… But as always, the idea of knuckling under, of spending his free time under Brenda’s gimlet eye, hedged in by her narrow-mindedness, made him shudder. I’d probably say something that would make her throw me out a week later anyway.
And if she ever suspected he was gay… a wave of anxiety hit him.
What he was doing worked. Anna was happy living with her Aunt Brenda most of the time, and she visited with Mac whenever he had a moment off work to take her.
Right now, Brenda thought Mac’s biggest sin was getting his late wife pregnant before they were married— a wrongdoing to be severely chastised, but not utterly despised. She kept him out of her house, since he refused to repent sufficiently, but she still met his supposedly-straight eyes when he arrived to pick Anna up.
With Anna safely cared for, Mac could say “I’m on it,” when his partner called at two AM with a new murder case, or when he was asked to cover for another detective’s shift. And month by month, dollar by dollar, he was paying off all the medical debt left when Anna’s mother, Mai, died.
It all works.
Sometimes he felt like he was juggling half a dozen balls, and one was a grenade. As long as I don’t come out, as long as no one knows I’m gay, it all works.
Anna jumped onto the bed beside him and snuggled up. Her little-girl sweetness was perfect comfort. Anything for Anna.
He wrapped an arm around her. “It’s bedtime, even on Christmas. But I’ll be here all night, and I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“I guess.” She put a finger on her chin, then nodded. “Will you read me lots of books and tell me the Christmas story, Daddy?”
“Sure. Get in your pajamas and into bed, and we’ll have story time.”
When she was dressed in a white nightgown, a new one Brenda’d bought that made her look like an angel, she stood by the bed while he brushed out her long black hair. The strokes of the bristles through that shining fall made him think of Mai. His wife had spurned chemotherapy, and kept her own hair to the end, and many nights, he’d sat on her bed behind her and done the same thing, running the brush scalp to hip, long after the tangles were gone. It’d been one of the few forms of physical comfort that hadn’t made her tense up and pull away.
“I bet your Mommy’s looking down right now, so proud of you,” he murmured.
“Aunt Brenda says not everybody gets to Heaven.”
“Your mother was a wonderful woman and if anyone goes to Heaven, she would,” he said stoutly, not mentioning that his belief in Heaven was worn very thin by ten years on the police force, and longer as a gay man. Anna deserved comfort, and a version Brenda wouldn’t object to was best. “Mommy loves you, and watches over you.” From wherever our spirits go when the body is dust. “I’m sure of it.”
Anna twisted to wave at the ceiling. “Hi, Mommy! It’s Christmas. I get presents. Can you say Happy Birthday to Baby Jesus?” She turned to Mac. “If she’s in Heaven, she can talk to Jesus, right?”
He wasn’t about to untangle theology. “I’m sure she can. Snuggle in your bed and let’s do books.”
He’d set up a small air mattress beside his bed for her, piled high with Disney quilts he’d scored from Goodwill. She loved a big nest of covers. He read several of her favorite books, including And Tango Makes Three, because someday, if things went wrong, he might need that love of two gay penguins and their chick to extend to him. He thought she’d fallen asleep, but when he set down Goodnight, Moon, she murmured, “And now the Christmas story, because it’s really Christmas.”
The version he had was another child’s story, with cute illustrations of sheep and donkeys and angels, and he showed her the pictures as he read. Anna stirred enough to ask, “What’s a major?”
“Manger, hon. It’s where they put hay for animals to eat.”
“Why’d she put a baby in it? Wouldn’t the animals eat him?”
“No, the hay’s for the donkeys and sheep and horses. They’re gentle and only eat plants.” He showed her the illustration of a chubby blond baby in a wooden hay-trough— Note for next year, find a non-blond version. Mai had given Anna her golden skin tone and uptilted eyes. Mac needed to make an effort to show Anna that non-white was beautiful. Next year. He rubbed his eyes. “Hay’s all soft and comfy. They used to stuff mattresses with hay, before we had cotton and things.”
“So it was comfy for Baby Jesus in the major?”
“I’m sure it was. Mary loved him very much.”
“Like you love me.” Hopefully, Anna was oblivious to how that made Mac’s heart ache. “But I like princess quilts better’n hay.”
He forced words through his tight throat. “I’m glad, since I gave you princess quilts.”
“Snuggly.” She wriggled down deeper in the covers, and waved a finger at him. “Read more, Daddy.”
By the time the wise men were giving gifts, Anna’s eyes had closed. Mac figured next year he’d be explaining frankincense and myrrh. He might need to refresh his memory on myrrh. Setting the book aside in the crate he used for Anna’s library, he turned off the bedside lamp. Anna’s bunny nightlight illuminated her way to the bathroom, six feet away, and tonight, the colors from the tree shed a new glow around the bare space.
A bachelor space. Clothes, books, his old TV. A space no other adult ever saw.
Mac kept his eyes on Anna, blocking out the sparse room. Every penny he earned went to Brenda for Anna, or to the debt, or to a tiny but growing college fund. He gave his job a hundred and ten percent when he was on duty, and Anna everything else. Right there was his reason why, his reason for living and trying. A precious child, one of a million in his city tonight, safe and warm and asleep. His Anna, and beyond her, so many more who counted on him.
He and Oliver had wrapped up a gang shooting last week and taken a remorseless killer off the streets. A month ago, they’d worked with Narcotics to nail a dealer who was deliberately cutting his product with sometimes-lethal amounts of fentanyl. One of the deaths had been a woman with two small children. His work mattered. It saved lives.
This stripped-down existence, orbiting around work and Anna, was the only answer.
So why does it feel like there should be something more? Why do I feel so empty?
It wasn’t even that long since he’d been to a Vegas bar. He’d picked up a six-foot-tall guy who’d been happy to let Mac pound him into the hotel mattress. He’d scratched that itch very thoroughly. He should be fine for months yet. He didn’t need more. Didn’t need anyone else.
Why does my life echo around me?
He focused on his little daughter, on the sweet curve of her cheek, the long, dark lashes that fluttered as she dreamed. Anna should be enough, was enough, simply the look in her blue eyes full of the love that fed his soul— Anna doesn’t have blue eyes!
He jolted awake with a garbled sound. Warm arms caught him and a male voice said in his ear, “Hey, careful, you’ll fall off the couch.”
He blinked up at bright blue eyes. Tony! Past and present crashed together and tangled his tongue, so all he could do was grunt and mouth words that wouldn’t emerge. Before he could get frustrated, Tony kissed him, occupying his lips and tongue very thoroughly. By the time the kiss ended, he had his wits and his language back and was able to say, “What time is it?”
Tony freed a hand to look at his watch, strapped over one scarred wrist. “Almost ten.”
“Anna should be home by now.” Mac pushed up off Tony’s shoulder and rubbed his eyes.
“She has a few more minutes.” Tony brushed a thumb across Mac’s cheek. “What were you dreaming? Something sad?”
Mac looked across the room at the tall pine tree they and the kids had decorated. The mismatched ornaments ran from blown glass to popsicle sticks, but the boughs were still heavily iced with tinsel, and the lights shone in a rainbow of colors. “Shouldn’t have been sad. Just a Christmas when Anna was small. Nothing bad happened.” But the echo of that bleak emptiness in his chest made him rub over his breastbone.
Tony seemed to recognize his lostness, because he grabbed Mac in a tight hug, pulling him close. “Long ago, babe. You’re stuck with all of us now, ‘specially me.” He kissed Mac’s temple and nuzzled his neck.
Mac relaxed against him. Tony might be inches shorter, and fifty pounds lighter, but his arms were strong and his body gave a sturdy support. To cover the rush of emotions, Mac grumbled, “And a good thing, since we seem to have been ditched by Anna.”
“She’s sixteen. She has a boyfriend. They get to have some holiday time together.”
“They could’ve gone out yesterday. Or tomorrow.”
“Don’t be a grouch.” Tony nipped Mac’s ear. “She’ll be home soon. Then we’ll get our traditions.”
“Yeah, well, she’d better be. I don’t like that boy. He’s not good enough for her.” Mac carefully didn’t imagine what two sixteen-year-olds might be doing, out on a romantic drive to see the holiday lights.
“Superman wouldn’t be good enough for Anna in your books. Hiro’s a good kid.” Tony gave him a squeeze, then wriggled out from under him and stood with a groan. “I’m not even forty. Why is my hip starting to seize up like this?”
“Too much athletic sex?” Mac joked, looking up at his favorite sight, even if the bad holiday sweater did dilute the effect of snug jeans.
“You wish.” Tony nudged his knee and bent to clear their empty mugs off the coffee table. “I need to start working out again. I’m getting flabby.”
Mac pushed to his feet and grabbed Tony’s butt-cheeks with both hands. “Doesn’t feel flabby to me.”
From the doorway, a young male voice said, “Aargh. Should I go back upstairs?”
Mac let go of his husband’s ass.
Tony grinned at seventeen-year-old Ben. “No, son, why don’t you get the popcorn started. I’ll come make the hot chocolate. Your sister should be home any minute.”
Ben pushed his hair out of his eyes, returned the grin, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Tony hip-bumped Mac, before following Ben. “That’ll teach you to keep your hands to yourself until the latch is on the door, Mister.”
“Yeah, uh huh.” They’d never been caught in a really compromising position by the kids, but he worried a hell of a lot less about it these days.
Mac had a flash-memory of the man he’d been in that dream, so afraid anyone might think he was gay that he’d stripped all the personality and warmth out of his life. Poor fool. He sent a mental message back. Keep a watch out for those blue eyes. That’s your future.
Although, if he hadn’t been so afraid, so closeted, would he have been desperate enough to overcome his scruples and get close to Tony as a murder suspect? Would he still have had the empty space inside him that Tony had so lovingly filled? Maybe everything was for the best.
Or not quite everything. There was a photo of Ben’s mother on the mantel with a candle by it, and a hole in the boy’s life nothing would ever quite fill. Mac’s head bore a scar that was emerging as his hair moved back at the temples, and he wasn’t sure all of that had a bright side. Making friends with Sinclair? A brilliant-pink-wrapped gift under the tree told him that even the worst times of his life with Tony had come with compensations.
I’m so damned lucky.
The front door opened, letting in a blast of cold and a beautiful girl. Anna waved behind her, slammed the door, and kicked off her boots.
Mac firmly refused to look her over for signs of being rumpled. “Hey, Princess, you made it by…” He made a production of checking his phone. “…a minute and a quarter.”
“Still counts.” She gave him a wide smile as she hung her coat. “The lights were awesome. Also tacky sometimes. This one place looked like the Ghost of Christmas Past puked all over the yard. I have pictures.”
“Hey, Anna.” Tony stuck his head out of the kitchen. “You sure you don’t want to do Creative Writing next semester? You could improve on ghost puke as a description.”
“And have my dad as a teacher? No, thanks.”
“I thought her word choice was very… evocative,” Mac defended her.
Anna laughed. “Ten-point word. Good one, Daddy. I’m gonna run upstairs and change.” She thumped off up the stairs that somehow never got carpeted.
“Five minutes,” Tony called after her. “Mac, marshmallows?”
Mac needed a second to catch up. “Oh, in the hot chocolate? Hell, why not.” It was Christmas, after all. Even if his days of being able to eat anything and burn it off were gone, he still stayed in good shape. He patted his flat stomach to reassure himself.
Tony moved behind him, kissed the back of his neck, and ran a hand over his abs. “Still hard as rock,” he murmured in Mac’s ear. “Oh, and your muscles are too.”
Mac was saved from an unfortunate response by Ben’s groan. “They’re at it again.” He brushed past them with a big bowl of popcorn.
Tony said, without any obvious remorse, “One day you’ll fall for a girl or boy or enby, and then you can embarrass us.”
“Not half as much.” Ben set the bowl on the table and added, “D’you want me to help with the hot chocolate, Dad?”
“Sure, thanks.” Tony released Mac and followed the kid out.
Mac wandered over to the tree, touching an ornament here and there. Our first real Christmas all together, when Tony’s mom tried to compensate by buying out Bloomingdale’s Holiday section. Our second real Christmas… The round ornaments marked “Dad and Daddy” in sparkle glue wouldn’t win any art contest, but he remembered unwrapping one from each kid, under Tony’s fond gaze, and fighting back tears. Ben’s elementary school graduation. That ornament had a picture of Ben, so serious, inside a frame of holly.
Our life. Eleven years together. Not one minute he’d trade for anything different. Well, maybe that first first-Christmas, when he was still pretending Tony was just convenient sex with a bit of friendship on the side. When he thought never coming out would make him happiest. I was an idiot.
Tony slid both arms around Mac’s waist and set his chin on Mac’s shoulder. “Hot chocolate’s ready.”
“How did you know?” he murmured.
“I was such a fool. How did you know I was worth waiting for? Worth fighting for?”
“You? Mac, please.” Tony set a palm on Mac’s chest. “Under here is the biggest, truest, most caring and protective heart I’d ever met. Even at your most oblivious, you were always worth fighting for.”
Behind them, Ben said, aside, “I don’t know why we do this every year. It makes ’em so sappy.”
Anna replied, “Yeah. But we get the good hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows, and we get to laugh at Daddy’s singing.”
“True. Almost worth it.”
Mac sighed deeply and theatrically, and turned. “Are you two clowns done?”
Anna tipped her mug at him. “Maybe?”
Tony laughed, grabbed Mac’s hand, and tugged him to the couch which the kids had left free for them. “Sit, Mac. Drink chocolate. Prepare your throat.”
Ben coughed, “Like that’d help,” behind one hand.
“Ungrateful offspring,” Tony chided. “Only I know where the extra marshmallows live.”
Anna piped up, “I saw them over the refrigerator, right side, at the back.”
Tony stared at her. “When did you get that tall?”
Mac had to remind him, “She’s been climbing on counters and ferreting out secrets since she was three.”
“Uh huh.” Anna took a big swallow, dark eyes dancing over the rim of the cup.
“Gun safe,” Tony muttered. “Next year, they’re in the safe.”
Some of Ben’s drink went up his nose when he laughed, and he sputtered.
Anna’s “Yuck, boys are so gross,” was reflex, as Tony passed Ben tissues.
“What about Hiro?” Ben mopped his lip. “If boys are gross, why are you dating him?”
“Hey, no sexism.” Tony held out the wastebasket for Ben to discard into, then sat back beside Mac and picked up his mug. “We’ll get to singing and adding Baby Jesus to the major soon—”
“Manger.” Anna sighed. “I don’t know where that joke came from, but it’s oooold.”
Mac caught Tony’s gaze. Major. He realized that at some point, he must’ve told Tony about that year when Anna was three. Somehow, Tony had let himself into Mac’s bleak past and reclaimed bits of it. Tony’s eyes held a private smile.
“Moving on,” Tony said. “We’re at that most dreaded part of Christmas Eve. The hot chocolate toast.” He raised his mug. “To the end of the Dad-taxi, now you both can drive. It’s been a good, less-hours-on-the-road year.” He took a sip.
Ben lifted his mug. “To the ghost of the old maple tree, and health and fast growth to the new one.”
They all drank to the memory of the old tree, split by a summer storm to reveal its hollow heart. The new tree was a baby yet, but Mac liked to think he and Tony would still be here, in this house, when it towered over the roof in its turn.
Anna tipped her mug at Tony. “To the end of the Dad-taxi. I can now get to school ten minutes faster than if Dad drives.”
Mac couldn’t hold back a choked, “What?”
Anna always had a wonderful laugh. That sound had comforted him through dark days, and it pulled a rueful smile from him now. “Gotcha, Daddy. Don’t worry, I’m a very safe driver.”
“You’d better be. It’d be damned embarrassing to ticket my own kid for speeding.”
“Like you hand out tickets these days,” Ben said.
“I could. If I wanted to.” He crossed his eyes at Anna, whose laugh became a giggle. Ah, God, Mai, the gift you gave me in your child.
After a pause, Tony nudged him. “Your toast, Mac? Before we get to the real entertainment.”
“Me singing ‘Good King Wenceslas?’”
“Nah, you do a decent job with that one. ‘Silent Night,’ on the other hand…”
Mac fought the twitch of his lips, and gazed around the room. The mantel was lined with photos, despite everything going digital. Tony was all about commemorating the moments, maybe because they both knew the future was never guaranteed. The tree shimmered with the movement of the air, Anna licked the rim of her mug, Ben gazed off into space but he was smiling.
Tony had been smiling too, but as Mac’s gaze reached him and stopped there, Tony’s full lips sobered. He tilted his head, blue eyes steady.
What did I do so right in a past life, to deserve Tony in this one? Mac didn’t know, but he’d do his best to be worthy of Tony for the rest of their lives. Unable to resist, he leaned forward, cupped Tony’s chin, and kissed him, softly and PG for the kids in the room, but with his heart in it.
Then he stood, raised his hot chocolate, and looked at the three people who filled his heart to overflowing. “Here’s to love and laughter, and happily ever after.”
#### the end #####
Read the beginning of Mac and Tony’s love story, and the building of their small family, in Life Lessons, Book 1 of the Life Lessons mystery-romance series. Currently on Amazon and in KU. Also in audio book narrated by the awesome JF Harding.
Life Lessons Series
Through All the Years (free coda)
If you may want to own a copy, Through All the Years will also be one of the stories in my forthcoming short story collection “The Distant Hills and Other Stories” releasing early 2023.
Through All the Years
©Kaje Harper 2022
Proofreading by Willow Board
Cover Art © Kaje Harper